But recordings of the exchange were muddled for two reasons. First, the English translation of Putin’s previous response was concluding as Mason began to speak. Second, the microphone seemed to pick up Mason’s question halfway through—making the latter half of it easier to hear. (Mason told me that he had held on to the microphone even though an official had tried to pull it away so that he could ask Putin a follow-up question. “I don’t know if they turned the sound off during the time when each of the presidents were speaking, or if it got flipped on and off. I certainly didn’t touch anything.”)
Technical difficulties aside, there’s further ambiguity. It’s unclear whether Putin said “Yes, I did” in reference to the question of whether he wanted Trump to win the 2016 presidential race, or in response to the question about whether he directed Russian officials to help Trump win. “You could interpret that to mean he’s answering ‘yes’ to both,” Mason told me, but “looking at it critically, he spent a good chunk of that press conference, just like President Trump did, denying any collusion. So I think it’s likely that when he said ‘Yes, I did,’ that he was just responding to the first part of my question and perhaps didn’t hear the second part.”
But if you watch the White House live-stream of the press conference or look at the transcript published by the White House, the first half of Mason’s question is not there. Without it, the meaning of the exchange is substantially different.
Compare this transcript, of what actually happened, to the White House’s version. Here is the record of what took place, starting with the last part of Putin’s comments before Mason’s questions. Putin is describing his willingness to assist with Robert Mueller’s probe (bolding is mine):
Vladimir Putin: That could be a first step, and we can also extend it. Options abound, and they all can be found in an appropriate legal framework.
Jeff Mason: President Putin, did you want President Trump to win the election and did you direct any of your officials to help him do that?
Putin: Yes, I did. Yes, I did. Because he talked about bringing the U.S.–Russia relationship back to normal.
And here’s the key section from the White House transcript, which makes it seem as though Putin is still talking about the Mueller probe:
PRESIDENT PUTIN: That could be a first step, and we can also extend it. Options abound, and they all can be found in an appropriate legal framework.
Q: And did you direct any of your officials to help him do that?
PRESIDENT PUTIN: Yes, I did. Yes, I did. Because he talked about bringing the U.S.–Russia relationship back to normal.
Another strange wrinkle comes from the Russian government’s English-language transcript of the press conference. In contrast to its footage of the press conference, which features what really happened, the transcript does not include any piece of that key exchange.